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Media Studies Number 168

David Hesmondhalgh’s
‘The Cultural Industries’
This Factsheet will consider the work of David Hesmondhalgh’s ‘The The cultural industries produce text that we, the audience, spend a
Cultural Industries’. large amount of time consuming and experiencing. As such, these
texts and the cultural industries become a powerful factor in our
Cultural Industries lives. These cultural industries have an interest in making profits, and
The term ‘cultural industry’ refers to the creation, production, and Hesmondhalgh asks whether the cultural industries ultimately serve the
distribution of products of a cultural or artistic nature. Cultural interests of their owners and executives, and their political and business
industries include television and film production, publishing, music, allies. Hesmondhalgh argues that cultural industries and the texts they
as well as crafts and design. You might also consider architecture, produce are complex, ambivalent and contested.
performance and visual arts, and advertising as part of a cultural
industry. Cultural industries are seen as adding value to society and Hesmondhalgh identifies that the societies in which the cultural
individuals. As they are often focused on intellectual property, the industries are highly profitable tend to be societies that support the
cultural industries are knowledge-based and require a large number conditions where large companies, and their political allies, make
of people in their production, therefore as an industry it will create money. These conditions being: constant demand for new products;
employment and wealth. They are also a source of cultural diversity, minimal regulation outside of general competition law; relative
innovation and creativity, thus will enhance economic performance. political and economic stability; workforces that are willing to work
David Hesmondhalgh summarises the role and nature of the cultural hard. However, Hesmondhalgh also identifies that in contemporary
industries, and why it is important to study them. societies the cultural industries often produce texts that do not
support these conditions. Instead, texts tend to offer ideologies which
The core cultural industries challenge capitalism or the inequalities of gender and racism in
These are, as Hesmondhalgh considers, the industries centrally society. This happens because the cultural industry companies need to
concerned with the industrial production and circulation of texts: continuously compete with each other to secure audience members. As
• Broadcasting: radio, television (cable, digital and satellite) such, companies outdo each other to try and satisfy audience desires
• Film industries: including the dissemination of film on video/
for the shocking, profane or rebellious. There are also longstanding
DVD/ television
• Music industries: recording, publishing and live performance social expectations about what art and entertainment should do,
• Print and electronic publishing: books, online databases, and challenging the various institutions of society is one of those
information services, magazines and newspapers expectations.
• Video and computer games: or digital games as some Definitions
commentators refer to them
Cultural industry -  an industry which produces creative texts of
• Advertising, marketing and public relations: greater functional
element than other cultural industries; intended to sell and promote cultural or artistic value; Cultural industries are those industries
other texts; centred on the creation of texts and require work of that are most directly involved in the production of social meaning;
symbol creators Hesmondhalgh considers cultural industries to be those that deal
• Web design: high functionality dynamic + strong aesthetic element primarily with the industrial production and circulation of texts.
These core cultural industries have their own dynamics, but these Interconnectivity - the ability for audiences to connect easily, widely
industries interact and interconnect with each other in complex ways. and effectively.
This is because they compete with each other for the same resources. Globalisation - the process of increased interconnection through trade,
The most significant of these resources are as follows (see Garnham, communications and movement.
1990: 158):
Cultural Imperialism - where one nation’s culture influences and
• A limited pool of disposable consumer income
• A limited pool of advertising revenue dominates that of another country - often through saturation of the
• A limited amount of consumption time dominant culture’s media products onto the subordinate culture.
• Skilled creative and technical labour Digitalisation - the integration of new technologies into media products
This competition for resources, and the shared characteristic as and everyday life. For example, the Apple Watch has digitised ‘the
producers of primarily symbolic artefacts, allows the cultural industries watch’ with the introduction of technology.
to be thought of as a sector or a linked production system Symbolic creativity - Hesmondhalgh refers to art as symbolic
creativity, and to artists as symbol creators. These terms are intended
Why study cultural industries? to cover all work and creators within the cultural industries.
The cultural industries make and circulate texts
Conglomerate – a large company that owns various smaller companies,
Cultural industries produce and circulate products that influence
ranging across different sectors, acquired through mergers or takeovers.
our understanding and knowledge of the world. Hesmondhalgh
One company will own a controlling stake in all the subsidiary
acknowledges that, although there is a debate about the scope of
companies, which operate separately from one another.
influence on the audience, “of one thing there can be no doubt: the
media do have influence.” (Hesmondhalgh, 2013).

Media Studies Factsheet
168. David Hesmondhalgh’s ‘The Cultural Industries’

Consider the ways in which an audience’s perception, knowledge and understanding of the world can be influenced by media. Give
some examples of media texts that influence audiences and complete the table below.

Media text What influence does the I den tify th e media Why does it influence
media text have? language that creates an audience?
Apple Watch ad campaign

HP Spectre + Microsoft ad campaign

Industries that make texts: distinctive features • Leads to strong orientations towards ‘audience maximisation’
Problems in the cultural industries (Garnham, 1990:160).
• Risky business
• Creativity versus commerce Semi-public goods
• High production costs and low reproduction costs • Cultural commodities are rarely destroyed by use.
• Semi-public goods; the need to create scarcity • Act like public goods – the act of consumption by one individual
does not reduce the possibility of consumption by others.
Responses • The means of industrial reproduction of cultural goods are
• Misses are often offset against hits by building a repertoire relatively low in cost so that firms have to achieve the scarcity
• Concentration, integration and co-opting publicity that gives value to goods by limited access to cultural foods
• Artificial scarcity and services by artificial means.
• Formatting starts, genres and serials
• Loose control of symbol creators; tight control of distribution Misses are offset against hits by building a repertoire
and marketing • Emphasis on audience maximisation means that misses are
offset against by means of ‘over production’ (Hirsch, 1990).
Risky business • Large catalogue of texts is produced, a ‘cultural repertoire’,
• Risk derives from the fact that audiences use cultural so that there is more likelihood of hits by the sheer amount of
commodities in highly volatile and unpredictable ways – often texts that are produced.
in order to express the view that they are different from other
people. Concentration, integration and co-opting publicity
• Risk stems from consumption and is made worse by 2 factors: • Cultural industry companies use various methods to mitigate
firstly, limited autonomy granted to symbol creators in the risk and ensure audience maximisation:
hope that they will create something original and distinctive; o Horizontal integration: buying up companies in the
secondly, the cultural industry company is reliant on other same sector to reduce the competition for audience and
cultural industry companies to make audiences aware of the audience time.
existence of a new product or of the uses and pleasure that they o Vertical integration: buying up companies involved
might get from experiencing the product. Companies cannot in different stages of the process of production and
completely control the publicity a product will receive, as circulation. Companies might by ‘downstream’ such as
judgments and reactions of audiences, critics and journalists when a company involved in making films buys a DVD
etc. cannot accurately be predicted. distributor, of ‘upstream’ which is when a company involved
• Cultural industries can be highly profitable in spite of high in distribution and transmission buys a programmer-maker.
levels of risk, but it may be difficult to achieve high levels of o Internationalism: buying and partnering other companies
profit for independent or individual companies. abroad allows companies to sell massive amounts of extra
copies of a text they have already produced at low cost
Creativity vs commerce (marketing costs).
• Long held that there should be an opposition between o Multisector and multimedia integration: buying into other
creativity and knowledge, and commerce. This has had related areas of cultural industry production to ensure
the effect of generating a set of tensions which are vital to cross-promotion.
understanding the cultural industries. o Attempt to co-opt critics, DJs and others who publicise
• The creativity/ commerce tension helps to generate the relative a text by socialising/ sending gifts/ press releases –
and provisional autonomy that many symbol makers attain Instagram #ad #spon – YouTubers etc.
• Adds to the uncertainty and difficulty of the environment in • Integration has led to the formation of bigger and more
which cultural businesses work. powerful companies.
• The consequences of this size and power are unique to the
High production costs and low reproduction costs cultural industries because of the ability of the goods they
• Most cultural commodities have high fixed costs and low produce to have an influence on our thinking about their
variable costs. operations, about all other industries, and about all aspects
• Digitalisation has only amplified this feature of life.
• Key point here is the ratio between production and • Larger cultural industry company = more power + greater
reproduction costs – the high ratio of fixed costs to variable chance for success + therefore influence on audiences.
costs in the cultural industries means that big hits are
extremely profitable.

Media Factsheet
168. David Hesmondhalgh’s ‘The Cultural Industries’

Artificial scarcity
Cultural industry companies will limit or control release of texts and ensure the adequate availability of goods. Vertical integration is the
primary method of creating artificial scarcity, however the following are also important:
• Advertising which controls or limits the relative importance of a product – how exclusive it is deemed to be.
• Copyright, which aims to limit or prevent people freely copying texts.
• Limiting access to the means of reproduction so that copying is not easy.
Formatting: stars, genre, serials
Another way for the cultural industries to cope with high levels of risk in their sector is to minimise the chance of a miss by formatting
their cultural products.
• Star system: associating the names of star writer, performers with a text. This involves considerable marketing efforts to break a new star
or writer, or to continue to maintain the star’s aura. As this is costly, it is reserved for those cultural texts that are hoped to be big hits
• Genre: genre terms operate as labels that indicate to the audience what to expect from the text. Many cultural productions are promoted
through the use of genre, as audiences will be familiar with the pleasures they can expect.
• Serial: the reliance on sequels and prequels – Hollywood is highly reliant on serials, the creation of a world or universe that can be
revisited repeatedly, in the hope for continued hits.
Loose control of symbol creators; tight control of distribution and marketing
Symbol creators are granted creative autonomy within the production process. Managers assume that big hits and creation of new stars are
as a result of originality. But this carries high levels of risk. To control these risks, there is tight control over the reproduction, distribution
and marketing – what Hesmondhalgh calls circulation. This is often achieved through vertical integration.
Business ownership and structure
• Increasing presence of large corporations in the business of cultural production.
• Significant oligopolies had emerged before the middle of the 20th century.
Abridged extract from ‘The Cultural Industries’, D. Hesmondhalgh.

Cultural industries as ambivalent

Hesmondhalgh considers the way the cultural industries distribute and organise symbolic creativity (i.e. texts audiences consume) reflects
extreme inequalities and injustices evident in capitalist societies. For instance, there are vast differences in terms of access to cultural industries
in society, in terms of your level of wealth, gender or ethnicity. There are also inequalities in the ways symbol creators are treated. Even those
who succeed in their work being accepted and widely circulated are often treated badly. Many symbol creators struggle to earn a living. There
are also inequalities in the availability of types of texts – some texts are promoted and distributed more widely than others (think big budget
TV drama compared to an independent TV documentary).
The cultural industries face another challenge, in the need to secure audiences. It is not, as you might think, about finding the largest audience.
Instead it is about ensuring that the texts find the right audience, and then finding the best ways of circulating texts to those audiences. The
consequence of this is that the cultural industry companies keep a tight control on circulation, more so than the level of control on production.

Re-read Factsheet 22 (Vertical and Horizontal Integration in Media Institutions). Focus on Vertical Integration. Why would this method
of organising cultural industries offer more control for companies? Research some large cultural industry companies and identify how
they control circulation of texts.

Cultural industries as complex

Hesmondhalgh identifies the place of the cultural industries in economies, and considers contemporary cultural industries to be complex
professional. This era (from 1950s onwards) sees work becoming more organised and professional in nature. Cultural companies employ more
individuals directly, and new media technologies are developed. In addition to this, advertising and marketing now became an important aspect
of not only selling cultural industries to audiences, but advertising and marketing texts became part of the cultural forms themselves. As a result,
cultural production gained a new economic importance, becoming a part of national economies and global business.
A key feature of a complex professional era of the cultural industries was growing influence and importance of large companies.
In Hollywood, various oligopolies emerged before the 1950s, famously known as the ‘Big Five’ (MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, 20th
Century Fox, RKO) and ‘Little Three’ (Universal, Columbia Pictures, United Artists). These eight companies were vertically integrated, and
controlled the production, distribution and exhibition of their texts.

The Big Five Studios

Media Factsheet
168. David Hesmondhalgh’s ‘The Cultural Industries’

Activity information that an audience receives about a text (from the advertising
Research the ‘Big Five’ and ‘Little Three’. How did each and marketing for example) but also the question of diversity for
company control the cultural industry and texts they produced? whom? Hesmondhalgh also acknowledges that the increasing size and
Consider the impact this had on the industry. Does it reflect scope of cultural industry companies does not automatically lead to
what Hesmondhalgh identifies about cultural industries? homogenisation or standardisation.

Commodification Activity
When Hesmondhalgh evaluates the changing social significance of Look at a range of British newspaper front pages and editorials.
the cultural industries, he considers commodification. This involves Do you see a diversity in the texts offered to audiences? Is there
the transforming of objects and services into commodities. At its most evidence of a standardisation or homogenisation? Consider the
basic level, it involves producing things not only for use, but also for editorial sections – do you see more diversity here? Why do you
exchange. Hesmondhalgh identifies some issues with commodification think this is?
and how it can be judged or evaluated. There is the problem on the
consumption side that commodification spreads the idea that owning Changing cultural industries
something or holding property of something gives you the right to Cultural industries have increasingly become globalised (see
exclude others. This then leads to inequalities and the exclusion of Factsheet 92 for more information about Globalisation) as a result
groups, it also leads to the promotion of private individual interest of digital media, new technologies and interconnectivity. As such,
which threatens collective behaviours for the common good. When there is greater exchange of cultural goods and services across
you consider the production side, commodification means that labour countries and different cultures. David Hesmondhalgh identifies how
is not recognised and is under-rewarded. A good example of this in the cultural industries have changed:
contemporary cultural industries would be the role of the Visual Effects • Cultural industries are no longer seen as second to the ‘real’
Artists. (For more information on the under-rewarded visual effects economy. Some are actually vast global businesses.
industry, listen to this episode of Freakonomics podcast. • Ownership and organisation of cultural industries is now much broader - the largest cultural companies now operate across a range
of cultural industries (for example, TV, publishing and film).
Hesmondhalgh also identifies the way culture was commodified, using
• These large conglomerates are now connected in complex ways
Frow’s example for print media:
however there are also many small and medium sized companies
- The commodification of the material object (the book) taking
place - as early as the 15th century. who create cultural products. These companies are becoming
- The commodification of the information contained within the increasingly connected with other medium and large cultural
material object as ‘the work’ in copyright law – from the 18th industries.
century onward. • Digitalisation, the internet and mobile phones have multiplied the
- The commodification of access to printed text information via ways audience can gain access to cultural content. This has made
electronic databases and so on in – in the late 20th century. small scale production much easier for millions of people (think
self-representation + prosumers).
Copyright underpins the ownership of cultural commodities but this
• Powerful IT and technology companies now work with cultural
was at the cost of placing consideration restrictions on the use of such
industries to understand and produce cultural production &
information. However, there is a serious conflict between commercial
consumption. These companies (e.g. Apple, Microsoft, Google,
institutions that attempt to make cultural works their private property
Amazon) are now as powerful and influential in cultural industries
and common ownership of cultural goods.
as traditional companies such as News Corporation, Time Warner
or Sony.
Activity • Cultural products can now be shared across national borders. This
Apply Hesmondhalgh’s process of commodification (material – increased the adaptation, reinvention and hybridity of genres and
information – access) to aspects of the Internet. You could products. It also enables cultures to reaffirm their values, reducing
consider news media, music or vlogging. the cultural influence of the USA.
• As cultural industries understand the growing role and influence of
Diversity the audience there is greater emphasis on marketing and research.
As the complex professional era brought about huge numbers of Cultural industries actively seek to find and address the niche
mediated texts circulated to huge numbers of the individuals, it also audiences.
prompted concern about these texts. These were focused on diversity • Traditions of public ownership and regulation have been dismantled
and choice, quality, and social justice (the extent to which interests of • Huge increase in the amount companies spend on advertising which
the rich and powerful are being served). has helped to fuel the growth of the cultural industries.
• Cultural texts (films, programmes, records, print media, images
The complex professional era saw an increase in the choice of texts
etc) have been radically transformed. Promotional and advertising
available, although there was a question about the extent of diversity
material now infiltrates areas and products more so than before.
in these texts. There is a difference between multiplicity – a large
There are more products across a wider range of genres, across a
number of voices – and diversity – whether or not these voices are
wider range of forms of cultural activity that ever before. Various
actually offering different things from each other (Mosco, 1996).
forms of cultural authority are increasing questioned and satirised.
Hesmondhalgh asks whether the range of texts available offers real
diversity when it comes to the expression of differing viewpoints, and Activity
whether audiences are encouraged to listen to a diverse range of voices Consider the changes Hesmondhalgh identifies. Apply these to
or stick to mainstream procures. Although many commentators have contemporary companies within the cultural industries. Explain
claimed a greater homogenisation of cultural industries, Hesmondhalgh how or why the companies meet Hesmondhalgh’s list of changes.
does not conclude that diversity is or isn’t limited. Instead, he
acknowledges that the huge proliferation of texts, and increased ways Acknowledgements: This Media Factsheet was researched and written by Katrina Calvert
to consume these texts, does not equate to diversity. This is due to the and published in September 2017 by Curriculum Press. ISSN 1351-5136